When a teenager in Hillsborough County found out she was pregnant, she moved in with her boyfriend. He was abusive, but she didn't know what else to do.
Another 17-year-old Hillsborough girl put up with her boyfriend's verbal abuse, name calling and put-downs because she thought it was her fault.
During the week of Oct. 8, a publication about dating violence will go to 90,000 Tampa Bay area middle school students, to try to help stop dating violence before it starts.
At the Family Justice Center of Hillsborough County on Tuesday, Verizon presented the Tampa Bay Times Newspaper in Education program with a $15,000 grant to fund the publication.
Newspaper in Education has been working on the project for a year and a half with organizations in Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties that provide support to victims of domestic abuse. NIE has wanted to address the topic because the statistics on dating violence show a need for more awareness among young people, said NIE manager Jodi Pushkin.
One in 10 high school students has experienced physical violence in a dating relationship, according to a 2012 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and one in four children witness domestic violence in their homes, said Nikki Daniels, executive director of the Family Justice Center in Hillsborough.
"If that's not happening to your child or your grandchild, that's happening to other kids in their classroom," she said. "Domestic violence is impacting everyone in our community."
The NIE publication will go to boys and girls in grades 6 to 8. The idea is to start talking to preteens when they're beginning to date, before they form unhealthy relationship habits.
Some kids come from homes where abuse is the norm. They don't realize there's a problem with their parents' relationship, so they don't realize if there's a problem with their own.
"It's important for young people to feel like they have their own independence," said Linda Osmundson, executive director of CASA, Community Action Stops Abuse. But what they often lack is information, and the life experience to know the difference between a healthy relationship and an abusive one.
Verizon has been involved in domestic violence awareness programs for more than 15 years, said Debby Kampert, who works with state government affairs for the company. Verizon has sponsored technology panels with teens and experts to get them thinking about healthy relationships.
The same tools teens use to stay in touch with friends — text messages, Facebook, phone apps like Foursquare with location tagging — can be used by an abusive boyfriend or girlfriend to keep constant tabs on them.
"We know kids are using technology in ways we never imagined," Daniels said. But the technology is second nature to them. "They don't think about the dangers."
Chad Herman, program coordinator for the Haven of RCS, which provides support to domestic abuse victims, goes into middle schools and high schools in Pinellas County to talk to boys about domestic violence. Often, the students he talks to see abuse at home and hear their fathers verbally abuse their mothers, he said.
"They don't realize that any of this behavior is wrong because it's what they've been taught, it's what they've been shown, it's what they've seen," he said.
An 11th-grade student who listened to Herman's program in school took the information home with him. His mother found materials from the program in his backpack, and it started a conversation between them about domestic abuse.
"She had stories from her past, as well as what was currently happening in their family and it turned into a very big family discussion," Herman said. Some marriages in the family ended, and others were strengthened.
"It changes the entire family dynamic," Herman said. "So when we go and talk to students in the schools, we're not just talking to them, we're talking to families."
Keeley Sheehan can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3321.